The emperors of China were among history’s foremost connoisseurs of tea. The wealth and power of the dragon throne granted them imperial tribute of the rarest tea, the best water, and tea brewed with the finest implements. In the art of tea, the use of metals -- bronze, silver, and gold -- was as ancient as the Warring States and Han periods when tea simmered in bronze tripods as a bitter herb in savory stews. The imperial ateliers of the Tang produced tea bowls and braziers, saltcellars and tea caddies of gold and silver. The poet and tea master Lu Yu made tea in a vessel cast of polished iron. But when at the emperor’s palace, Lu Yu called for the ultimate in aesthetic purity and elegance and chose a cauldron of silver for the brewing of tea. In the Ming, small gold teapots were used among high court officials and silver ones were favored by the most discriminating, while some preferred silver tea washers with which to rinse their leaves. The Qianlong emperor of the Qing dynasty made his tea with water measured in a flask of pure silver.
A connoisseur of the first order, Qianlong was very concerned about the quality of water for brewing tea and he made a special point of knowing about water and its properties. A story was told about Qianlong and his quest for tea, a curious tale that rested neatly on a heretical remark uttered as he drank Dragon Well tea: “The water from Jade Spring will do just fine.” The imperial non sequitur became important in the history of tea, but to understand why involved knowing of Qianlong’s silver flask and his search for the purest of water.
It was the practice of the Qing emperors to make imperial tours of inspection through the southern half of the empire. The progress took four months, the emperors often riding on horseback in the midst of a huge retinue of thousands. At the southern end of the tour was picturesque Hangzhou, an ancient capital celebrated by poets for its art and culture. Bounded by the shores of beautiful West Lake, the city was renown for its cuisine, pleasure quarters, and scenic sites. Over generations, the Qing imperial family built palaces and pavilions along the broad waters of the lake, decorating the halls with paintings and poetry inspired by its lovely views. When the Qianlong emperor made his southern tours, the pleasures of Hangzhou and West Lake were foremost in his mind. Of especial interest to Qianlong was to taste the tea grown in the lush gardens of the nearby mountains and to drink from the local sweet water springs. One famous spring named Dragon Well lent its name to a special green tea. The Ming literati described the taste of Dragon Well as “strong and rich, its color like light gold, its essence still and deep. It is long on the palate, and on the tongue, it is fresh and moist and full.” To taste Dragon Well at its most celebrated source, Qianlong called on the keeper of Hugong Temple, a place known for a reserve tea picked from eighteen special bushes.
When Qianlong arrived at the temple gate, the keeper ushered the emperor and his entourage into the hall and personally prepared the tea. Qianlong was first shown a small mound of loose tea and invited to inspect the leaves. The emperor was told that each possessed one tight bud and a single small leaf, a choice pick called the “staff and flag.” Each was pan-fired to a flat oblate, uniformly dark green. The keeper offered one for him to taste. As Qianlong nibbled on the dry leaf, he found the texture crisp with a pleasant nutty flavor. The tea was placed in a porcelain bowl that was filled with steaming water and covered. Lifting the lid, Qianlong admired the leaves unfurling like green banners against pure white. As the tea steeped, the keeper explained that the water had been taken just that morning from the nearby Spring of Running Tigers, one of the most famous sources of water in the empire. Crystal clear and tasting pure and sweet, the water brought forth the rich quality and color of the tea. So well-matched was the water to the tea that centuries of tradition deemed that only water from the Spring of Running Tigers was good enough to brew Dragon Well. So firm was the tradition that the tea and water were said in the same breath and known as the “twin absolutes:” “Dragon Well, Spring of Running Tigers.” Qianlong nodded, acknowledging the import of this local conceit. Then, the keeper bowed and tea was served. Gingerly, Qianlong sipped the hot golden liquid, its grassy aroma and robust flavor filling his senses. Delighted by the tea, the emperor proclaimed Dragon Well an imperial commission and ordered the abbot to send tea from the temple’s eighteen bushes to the Forbidden City. Pleased by his command, Qianlong cast about for approval only to find his entourage silently exchanging glances under arched brows. Finally, a senior courtier bowed and asked, “My Lord, how will Your Majesty brew Dragon Well tea without the requisite water from the Spring of Running Tigers?” Qianlong, with a knowing look, replied curtly, “The water from Jade Spring will do just fine.” Astonished and cowed by the emperor’s audacity, everyone bowed to the imperial will.
Qianlong’s abrupt and enigmatic reply left the poor keeper flustered and all wondering just what heresy loomed beyond by brewing “Dragon Well tea” without water from the “Spring of Running Tigers.” The emperor alone was unconcerned, confident in breaking with the vaunted tradition of the “twin absolutes.” So ended the tale, with Qianlong appearing capricious and arbitrary and just another imperious emperor getting his way. But the full story is more interesting by far, especially the emperor’s history with the sweet waters of Jade Spring.
Jade Spring was named in antiquity for a large stone around which its abundant waters flowed. In the twelfth century, the Chin dynasty created Beijing as its central capital, establishing the city as the imperial seat of four dynasties and spanning more than eight hundred years. Surrounded by dense forests in the suburban hills west of the city, Jade Spring was a tranquil place, one of eight scenic spots of the capital designated by the Chin emperor. During the Ming period, the Yung-lo emperor, noting the bitter-tasting water of Beijing, ordered that the waters of Jade Spring diverted to the imperial palace and reserved for the private use of the emperor and his family. In the succeeding dynasty, the Qing emperors inherited the Forbidden City and the imperial estates in the western hills where they hunted and played. By the eighteenth century, the emperors had all known of the fine Jade Spring waters for seven hundred years.
When Qianlong created the Summer Palace around 1750, he chose the cool and shaded woods surrounding Jade Spring for a vast pleasure ground of palaces nestled within its “three hills and five gardens.” The emperor had drunk the water from Jade Spring all of his life and could attest to the water being mild, and sweet, and “pure like jade.” When Qianlong made tea, it was brewed with the water from Jade Spring. Like all tea masters and connoisseurs, the emperor knew that water was essential to the art of tea. Sweet water for tea was pure, clear, and light. Superior water -- colorless, odorless, tasteless -- was the ideal medium for tea and allowed the manifestation of tea’s true flavor, color, and scent. Great emphasis was placed on using only the best for brewing tea, and for centuries no small effort was spent searching for the perfect water. In tradition, connoisseurs of water and tea named five springs that were highly ranked as sources of fine water: Zhongling Spring in Zhenjiang, Huishan Spring in Wuxi, Guanyin Spring in Suzhou, Spring of Running Tigers in Hangzhou, and Baotu Spring in Jinan.
Spring water was considered superior to water from flowing streams and rivers, and water drawn from wells was ranked last, if considered at all. Spring water that gushed and spouted was considered superior to slowly flowing or seeping water. Qianlong was particularly interested in hydrodynamics and its natural expression. His own Jade Spring spewed forth with such force that the spray from the sculpted stone dragon fount resembled snowflakes falling into the pool below. The emperor had also experienced a spectacular water fountain on one of his southern tours of inspection. At Baotu Spring in Jinan, Shandong, Qianlong marveled at water that “springs suddenly.” Roiling and bubbling up like spinning cartwheels from a large, deep, blue pool, Baotu Spring periodically and abruptly forced columns of water high into the air. Impressed by the display, Qianlong also found the spring’s water tasted superb. It was said that Qianlong had carted his own supply of casked water from Jade Spring for his southern tour, but he was so taken with the local water that he quickly replaced the water with that from Baotu Spring.
Back in Beijing after months of travel, Qianlong returned to his Jade Spring to inscribe one of two inscriptions on a rock stele on site. On the back of the rock, he inscribed four characters, “Jade Spring springs suddenly” in admiration for the energetic waters of both Jade and Baotu springs. On the front of the stele, Qianlong bestowed his highest accolade on Jade Spring in five characters, “First Spring Under Heaven.” Yet, the many virtues of Jade Spring -- its purity, clarity, and mildness -- all remained guarded and hidden, secreted away from the world of tea by an opaque veil of imperial privilege.
Still, Qianlong was determined to include Jade Spring in the venerable tea tradition. When confronted in Hangzhou to make Dragon Well tea without water from the Spring of Running Tigers, he championed Jade Spring. His declaration for the water of Jade Spring was borne less of imperial conceit than meticulous inquiry. For Qianlong had an unusual scientific bent and was fascinated by Western studies in architecture, astronomy, time, and hydrology. But only those closest to the emperor knew of Qianlong’s silver flask, an instrument that literally took the measure of water. Created by the imperial ateliers to Qianlong’s design and exact specifications, the precise weight of the flask was known and its capacity minutely calibrated. When filled, the weight of the water held in the flask could be calculated to within a thousandth of a Chinese ounce. Qianlong believed that the lighter the water, the fewer impurities it contained; therefore it followed that the lighter the water, the purer it was. The first water he measured was, of course, his favorite: Qianlong discovered that the water from Jade Spring weighed one ounce exactly.
As he traveled on tour from one famous spring to the next, Qianlong tested the spring waters of the empire, particularly those several springs that had been revered in the history of tea for over a millennium, weighing their waters with his silver flask. Remarkably, the other spring waters all weighed more than Jade Spring by one to four thousands of an ounce. In Hangzhou, Qianlong visited all the famous springs around West Lake. In vindication of the emperor, the water from Spring of Running Tigers weighed one and four thousands of an ounce, much more than Jade Spring. To mark his triumph, Qianlong recorded his achievement in the Record of Jade Spring, First Spring Under Heaven; and by proclaiming, “The water from Jade Spring will do just fine,” he deliberately challenged and changed tradition, enriching the history of tea with a small silver flask and an imperial style that few emperors ever matched.
Notes and Suggestions:
The name Jade Spring is used throughout China for many springs. In fact, there is a Jade Spring in Hangzhou near West Lake just west of the Yue Fei Shrine.
After the Chinese Communists established the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Jade Spring Mountain in the Summer Palace northwest of Beijing was used as a convalescent home for Communist Party members. The site is presently occupied by the Chinese air force, and is believed to be a restricted suburban retreat for high-ranking military officers and party members.
Baotu Spring in Jinan, Shandong was named “the spring that leaps or springs suddenly,” its geysers of water likened to the speed and sudden movements of a leopard.
For images of Jade Spring and environs see the Powerhouse Museum website and the three 20th-century black and white photographs taken by the German-born photographer, Hedda Hammer Morrison:
Jade Spring, ca. 1933-1946. Hedda Morrison (1908-1991).
Powerhouse Museum, Sydney. Gift of Mr. Alastair Morrison, 1992.
Jade Spring, ca. 1933-1946 (image 31). Hedda Morrison (1908-1991).
Powerhouse Museum, Sydney. Purchased 2005.
Looking towards the Summer Palace from Jade Spring (Yuquan) Mountain, ca. 1933-1946. Hedda Morrison (1908-1991).
Powerhouse Museum, Sydney. Gift of Mr. Alastair Morrison, 1992.
EDITOR'S NOTE: we are honored to have this contribution from steven d. owyoung. mr owyoung was assistant curator of asian art at harvard university's fogg museum before becoming curator of the asian collections at the saint louis art museum, where he continued for over two decades before his retirement in 2005. mr owyoung is currently at work on a new annotated translation of the cha jing of lu yu.